Reporting on the Zika pandemic

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By: Yadira Nieves-Pizarro

Pandemics are considered global crisis. As such they receive comprehensive news coverage and require responses from governments and health authorities.

As it happens with terrorism, mainstream news outlets in the United States will cover disease outbreaks such as Avian Influenza, Ebola or Zika virus as they threaten to infect their population. In 2014, there were four cases of Ebola registered in New York and Texas (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014) that received major news coverage. Recently, 1,305 Zika virus cases have been reported in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). Until recently these cases were generally “travel-associated” as most of the patients come from Latin America where the virus has been linked to microcephaly in newborn children (Fox, 2016). Nevertheless, in August 2016 the country reported local contagion (Garcia Casado, 2016).

The state of Florida is considered “ground zero” for Zika because mosquitoes prevail all year-round. Recently, the state government has declared a public health emergency (Dana, 2016). Many Americans and other international tourists come to Florida during the summer time to enjoy some time in the theme parks. Yet, local and international tourists are being dissuaded to come to Disney World, as well as other destinations in the Caribbean, because of the Zika virus (Storey, 2016). Cottle (2008) anticipated that global health threats might constrain mobility for citizens of the world, and in this case for the average American.

Likewise, Latin American and Caribbean countries have seen a decline in tourism activity as Zika news reports have scared away potential visitors from popular summer venues. According to World Bank estimates for 2016, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic will suffer greater loses this year as a significant part of their economy depends on tourism (Associated Press, 2016; Ojea, 2016).

News media professionals in the United States have to report global crisis such as the Zika virus spread to create awareness among the American public. As a result, the type of coverage given to the crisis will define how the audience responds to the threat (Cottle, 2008). Locally, on the other hand, news outlets face challenges to make topics such as the Zika outbreak relevant to their audience. On the first place, Cottle (2008) espouses that the sources that sponsor the crisis must be legitimate and be able to communicate the message of awareness, prevention or specific actions to be taken regarding the health threat. Secondly, in order to make stories relevant, news professionals must consider putting a human face on the topic. Hight and Smyth (2003) recommend “writing about the victims lives and their effect on the community” (p. 6) in order for the audience to relate to the crisis.

Thirdly, in order to effectively communicate global crisis news professionals must consider the audiences’ nature. The modern news consumer is continuously evolving as digital innovations change the way news are delivered. According to the Pew Research Center 70% of adults in the United States follow national and local news “somewhat closely” while 65% track international news “with some regularity” through their desktop computer or mobile devices (Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel, & Shearer, 2016).

This lukewarm reception to news forces news organizations to implement audience engagement strategies that encompass more than just having a social media presence. For instance, The Chicago Tribune emphasizes on transparency and often explains to the readers the newsgathering process though a blog in their site and in the print edition. For the sake of accuracy, errors are quickly amended. In addition, the news organization habitually holds community-based events, listens to the opinions the community has about their news coverage and gather news ideas that are in tune with their interest. Finally, the Chicago Tribune embraces social media, staying on top of trending topics.

Reporting a global crisis to the American public is challenging, but to do so at a local news market level is even more uphill. Effective reporting will depend on many other considerations such as routine practices and the size of the news organization. Yet, it is the responsibility of local news organizations to open the scope of the coverage and make crisis relevant to their audience who are, at the same time, citizens of the world affected by global crisis.


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